By definition, in its simplest form, the term “Ringer” means a cheat. However when it comes to hockey and the ever changing lingo/dressing room talk, a “Ringer” means something quite different. The Ringer is the Stud, the All-Star, the Top Gun.
Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve had a fascination with small towns and in particular the hockey programs/teams that reside in these towns. I can remember going on road trips with my dad and being his navigator as we drove through towns like Dominion City, Gladstone and Morden on our way to various tournaments across the prairies. I would inform my dad every ten minutes how much closer we were to our destination and which grain elevator belonged to each town. My dad would smile and nod his head as if my instructions to him had some huge impact or bearing on the drive-when in reality- it didn’t. This was before the days of Google Maps or GPS and I can still feel the map in my hands as I followed the Yellowhead Highway with my index finger.
Almost two decades later, my career as a junior hockey player, scout and coach- along with many other adventures have brought me back to many of these small towns. Believe me when I tell you that the excitement I felt as a child has not disappeared. Killarney, Russell and Minnedosa may as well be the Vegas strip.
Lost in the Moment
About a year and a half ago, on a late fall day, I found myself walking down a street in one of these small prairie towns. The leaves littered the streets, while wind chimes dinged in the distance. I got so lost in the moment that I soon found myself at the edge of town, in a mobile home community.
The wind had stopped and the leaves had been replaced by gravel, broken down cars and an array of children’s toys. I made an abrupt stop, noticed where I was and started to make the turn back to Main Street- when I heard it- Wrap, Wrap, Spit- Wrap, Wrap, Spit. I knew that sound.
I’ve taken more than my fair share of punches to the head and have forgotten names, dates and times along the way. However, if there are any guarantees in this life besides it ending, I know this- I will never forget the sound of a hockey blade being taped. I could be banished to a desert island for thirty years and still pick up that sound from thirty feet away. It is as loud and brash as it is elegant and flowing. The other sound -the Spit- is one I would rather forget but after spending season after season with some of the greatest men this game has produced- the sound of chewing tobacco hitting the side of an empty bottle is always welcoming.
Okay, okay, enough with the sounds- where is the source? I begin to survey each deck and porch, trying to ignore the debris filled driveways. I almost complete a full 360 when I see him. We lock eyes, as he smiles and motions at me to come over. There is no introduction needed, I already know who he is. The Ringer.
I make my way past the broken down 1994 Ford Probe and through the dog shit that covers the front walk. I jump up the steps to the deck and in through the front door of the porch to behold a man in his early thirties, with a toothless smile, light eyes and holding a freshly taped, Sher-Wood T90 composite hockey stick. The Ringer opens up with, “What in the fuck are you doing walking down this God forsaken road”? I put my hand out to introduce myself, as he gets up from the ravished futon to greet me. “I’m Derek, grab a seat while I figure out if I know you or not”.
It turns out he didn’t know me, but I knew him. He is older than me and while I was navigating the roads for my dad, Derek (name changed) was the talk of the town in many of the hubs we drove through. You would hear about his smooth hands or cannon shot. Or how you never knew whether he was going to drop the gloves or slash his opponent in the chest. The Ringer.
I sit down and take a look around the porch, while he sips from one cup and spits into a bottle, staring at me the entire time. In between chugs and spitting he starts in, “Are you lost or are you trying to get lost?” I reply with, “What kind of question is that?” Derek comes back with, “Well it comes down to this- if you’re lost I’ll get you a coffee but if you’re trying to get lost or forget about something, I’ll offer you a Jimmy”. He is referring to the bottle of Jim Beam he has on the table, standing tall amongst the tins of chewing tobacco and cigarette butts. I go on to ask him what he is drinking and he responds with, “Both”.
We sat there for a few minutes just staring at each other before he opened up, “You played puck, didn’t you”? I told him that I had, but that dream died a few years ago and I had moved on. He nodded as he took a pull of his “coffee” and replied with, “I wouldn’t know anything about giving up on dreams or moving on, all I know is this”. I didn’t know whether to take offence or laugh, so I did neither. However, I knew I had to keep this dialogue going. An unexpected conversation, with the Ringer.
I played dumb, acting like I didn’t know anything about him. I asked questions about his promising junior career, which translated into a short college stint and an even shorter professional one. He talked and reminisced about his junior days and how he thought, just like everyone else, that he would make the “jump” to the next level. After listening to him for about half an hour, I stopped and asked him, “So are you lost or trying to get lost”? He smiled, packed a fresh lip of chew and responded with, “Buddy, I’m living”.
I wasn’t sure if he had answered my question or not, so I decided to press further. I wanted to know what living was. Living for Derek, meant playing senior hockey in this small town for $100.00 cash a game. It meant staying with his girlfriend, Alex, and her son Nolan. He had met Alex three years ago at the local bar after signing with the senior team. Living meant getting free sticks and equipment from the team and eating for free at the local Inn.
As he continued to speak, I realized that I was talking to someone who had never truly grown up and furthermore, never had to. That became even more evident when Nolan, Alex’s son, came to the screen door and smiled at me. “He has more teeth than you do”, I chirped at Derek, who began laughing hysterically before telling Nolan to go help his mother. Before Nolan left he asked Derek, “Will you let me come into the dressing room tonight after the game”? “If you go help your mom right now then we will see”, replied Derek. You could see the admiration and the love in Nolan’s eyes that he had for his surrogate father, but I’m not sure Derek saw it. Nolan turned back to look at me then took off into the back of the house when he heard his mother yell. The Ringer.
I sat there staring at the empty space where Nolan had been standing, trying to process this entire situation which was going on around me. “Ya during the season it’s nice, I will work a few odd jobs or shovel a few walks to make some more cash”, boasted Derek. I quickly turned my attention back to him, “What about in the off season?” “The owners here love me and so does the town, I get work tossin’ hay bales or doing manual labour with one of the farmers”, Derek replied. I smiled and nodded as I tried to piece together how he survived out here. The Ringer.
I stayed there chatting for close to an hour with Derek. I studied his hands, the scars on his face and the way he never put down his freshly taped stick. When I decided it was time to go, Derek tried to convince me to stay, saying that Alex would make us hot dogs. I insisted that I had to get going and he said he understood. “Well it was nice bullshittin’ with you, most of the guys on the team don’t live in town so the days can get long”, stated Derek, “Come out and catch a game sometime, just tell them you’re my buddy- no admission”. I knew I probably wouldn’t be back here but I told him I would if I was ever in the area. I shook his hand before leaving him on his porch. The Ringer.
I made my way back to town and to the street with the chimes, where my car was parked. I sat in my car, rapidly going over the encounter with Derek. It was then and there that it hit me- I envied him. Here I was working 9-5, living cheque to cheque and going to night classes, while Derek was having drinks on game day. However, I quickly shook my head and realized the underlying, obvious factor in the situation. I was moving on with my life and taking on the things that came with that- Derek wasn’t. At some point, his way of living wouldn’t be possible, but he wasn’t thinking about that. By him holding onto that stick, he was holding on to playing and thus his way of living. A part of me admired that and still does. The Ringer.